Waiting for justice in Afghanistan

August 28, 2014

A new report from Amnesty International documents war crimes committed by U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, writes Helen Redmond.

"We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks...We did some things that were contrary to our values."
-- President Obama, August 1, 2014

THE U.S. military was supposed to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, but instead, during 13 years of war and occupation, American forces have massacred thousands of people in air strikes, dropped bombs on wedding parties, shot and killed pregnant women during night raids, and murdered children in cold blood.

The majority of civilian casualties have received scant attention in the U.S. media. The one exception was the murderous rampage of Army Sgt. Robert Bales that resulted in the deaths of 16 men, women and children.

A new report by Amnesty International documents disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings that "involve abundant and compelling evidence of war crimes."

The report titled, "Left in the Dark: Failures in Accountability For Civilian Casualties Caused by International Military Operations in Afghanistan," critically examines 10 cases where the U.S. military killed civilians. Not surprisingly, few American soldiers have been held accountable for their crimes. Only six incidents to date have been criminally prosecuted.

A British soldier on patrol in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan
A British soldier on patrol in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan

In addition, the military employs more than 100,000 private security contractors who are involved in military operations, but it isn't known if these forces have killed civilians.

Amnesty investigators describe how U.S. military authorities systematically deny responsibility for civilian deaths, often insisting that the dead were "militants"; conduct investigations in secret and don't release the findings; and consistently delay or ignore Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests for years. A striking theme throughout the report is how military officials tell lies and then later retract the lies. No one is ever prosecuted for promoting blatant falsehoods.

Amnesty notes that the release of the Afghan War Diary by WikiLeaks has been instrumental in aiding investigations.

THE REALITY is the Pentagon has never been interested in confirming the number of civilians American forces kill. Those kinds of numbers don't garner public support for war. The ugly truth that the U.S. military will never admit is that the deaths of civilians are "collateral damage." It is an unavoidable cost of war and occupation.

An unassailable fact of modern warfare is that more civilians die than soldiers engaged in direct combat. In Afghanistan, after 13 years of war, 2,200 members of the U.S. military have died, but according to an updated study done by Neta Crawford, as many as 19,000 Afghan civilians have been killed.

It wasn't until 2008, seven years into the war, that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) began to record civilian casualties by setting up the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell. Human Rights Watch released a report on civilian casualties the same year that concluded:

The combination of light ground forces and overwhelming air power has become the dominant doctrine of war for the U.S. in Afghanistan. The result has been large numbers of civilian casualties, controversy over the continued use of air power in Afghanistan, and intense criticism of U.S. and NATO forces by Afghan political leaders and the general public.

The Amnesty case study on the U.S. Special Operations Forces' raid on a home in Paktia province graphically illustrates the brutality of American soldiers and the lengths that military spin-doctors will go to cover up the slaughtering of civilians. The raid was carried out by two dozen soldiers and took place during a family celebration. Two pregnant women, two government criminal justice officials and one teenager were shot to death.

Amnesty investigators painstakingly reconstructed the events of that night using extensive interviews of the survivors. Sayed Mohammed Mal described the pandemonium: "I heard screams and shots, women screaming, and another shot, and more screams. People were shouting that Dawood was shot...It was shot, scream, shot, scream, and only after the fifth person fell did the Americans announce on a loud speaker, 'This is Special Forces, don't move! No one move!'"

Soldiers entered the compound and beat the survivors, ransacked rooms and stole money. Then the raid took a gruesome turn. A witness named Haji Sharabuddin told Amnesty that when the soldiers realized they had killed two pregnant women, they attempted to dig the bullets out of the bodies. Sharabuddin begged them not to touch the dead women, but was ignored.

The official cover-up began with ISAF claiming they "found" the bodies of three women who had been bound, gagged and killed. The men killed at the compound were "armed insurgents." A senior U.S. official told journalists that the women appeared to be victims of a "traditional honor killing," possibly by the Taliban.

Eventually, the truth came out after independent reporter Jerome Starkey investigated the incident and published a story in The Times of London. ISAF then attempted to discredit Starkey and denied a cover-up. Three months later, NATO admitted responsibility and Vice Admiral William McRaven visited the families and apologized, giving them two sheep and some cash.

No one involved in the killings or whitewash were held accountable. Sharabuddin told Amnesty, "I want justice. I want the U.S. government to prosecute those responsible for what was done to me. They have taken away our happiness."

U.S. SPECIAL Operations Forces have carried out thousands of night raids, at one point up to 40 a night. Official statistics released by the U.S.-NATO command revealed that well over 1,500 civilians were killed in raids in less than 10 months between 2010 and 2011.

As American troops are drawn down, President Obama wants Special Ops teams to remain in Afghanistan to continue carrying out night raids and counterterrorism operations. Night raids are the reason Karzai has rightly refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S.

The Amnesty International report details the appalling torture and murder of at least 10 Afghans at the hands of an elite unit of U.S. Special Operations Forces known as the "A-Team." Amnesty conducted extensive interviews with 10 eyewitnesses to the crimes, including four survivors.

Qandi Agha worked at the Ministry of Culture in Wardak province. Agha, who was 51 at the time of the kidnapping, was told by his sadistic American captors that he'd be tortured in 14 different ways. His description of the torture is stomach-turning:

First, they took off my clothes. Then they tied a thin plastic cord around my penis so I couldn't pee. Then they forced me to lie down face down on the floor. Four people beat me with cables. They tied my legs together and beat the soles of my feet with a wooden stick. They punched me in the face and kicked me. They hit my head on the floor. They tied laces around my neck to strangle me...They left the string around my penis for four days.

Agha was also waterboarded and shocked with an electric stun gun.

The relatives of the missing searched for the men and hundreds of Afghans blocked a highway calling for the arrest of the Special Forces team. Finally President Hamid Karzai agreed to an investigation and after a mutilated body was found, he ordered the Special Forces out of Wardak province, accusing them of war crimes.

U.S. officials continue to deny any involvement but, under pressure from international human rights organizations, the U.S. military has opened a criminal investigation into the killings.

THE REPORT goes in to great detail about the countless difficulties that victim's families confront to get justice. In order to even bring attention to the killing of their loved ones, Afghans are reduced to bringing the dead bodies wrapped in blankets to Afghan leaders as proof.

A major roadblock is the Status of Forces Agreement, which gives all international military forces in Afghanistan immunity from prosecution under Afghan law.

Afghans must appeal directly to the U.S. military justice system, which is "commander-driven." It is a self-policing system with little motivation for commanders to prosecute soldiers. This is a key reason investigations and prosecutions are difficult to obtain.

Amnesty investigators write in the report that "Commanders, too, have little incentive to report cases or push them forward, as misconduct among their troops can reveal command failures, or even their own misconduct. By protecting their subordinates, they protect themselves."

The cases that are brought to court are doomed because the judges and juries are members of the military. And the majority of military trials don't include testimony from Afghan witnesses.

The Amnesty report offers a set of recommendations to ensure that data on civilian casualties are collected and that civilians killed in military operations have access to justice. But that is naive. The U.S. military isn't interested in collecting statistics or in justice for the Afghan civilians they kill. They are not even human beings in the eyes of U.S. officials.

Atrocities and cover-ups are hallmarks of every war the U.S. has been involved in. The Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam and the Haditha massacre in Iraq are just two examples. No reforms, no matter how well intentioned, will end this barbarism.

The only recommendation that makes any sense is to not go to war.

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